Haim Gouri, veteran Israeli war poet, dies at 94

Prolific writer, journalist, and documentary filmmaker, the dean of Palmach-era Hebrew verse, gave a voice to Israel’s pain and pride

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Veteran Israeli poet, novelist, journalist, and documentary filmmaker Haim Gouri at his home in Jerusalem, July 6, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Veteran Israeli poet, novelist, journalist, and documentary filmmaker Haim Gouri at his home in Jerusalem, July 6, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Haim Gouri, the veteran Israeli poet, novelist, journalist, and filmmaker who over a 70-year career gave voice to some of the country’s most emblematic and tumultuous moments, died Wednesday at 94.

Born in Tel Aviv in 1923, Gouri joined the pre-state Palmach paramilitary group in 1941, participating in a number of operations against British Mandate forces stations in then-Palestine and becoming one of the first recruits to complete the elite forces’ commanders course.

As part of his service he was sent to Hungary in 1947 to assist Holocaust survivors emigrate to Mandate Palestine before serving as a deputy company commander in the Palmach’s Negev Brigade during the 1948 Independence War.

Considered the dean of Palmach-era Hebrew verse, his first published book of verse, “Fire Flowers,” detailed his personal experiences during the war and gave voice to the duality of pain and pride felt by many of Israel’s first soldiers.

One of the most iconic and anguished poems of that collection, “Here Lie Our Bodies,” was dedicated to the “Lamed Hey,” the convoy of 35 Hagana soldiers who were ambushed and killed during an attempt to resupply the kibbutzim of the Etzion Bloc in 1948, and helped immortalize the story in the annals of early Israeli history.

Haim Gouri (left) in the Palmach in 1949. (Palmach Archive/Public Domain)

He went on to write several other volumes of poetry spanning most of Israel’s early military conflicts and iconic events and made a name for himself as a successful documentary filmmaker and journalist. As a reporter, he wrote for the now defunct Lamerhav and Davar daily newspapers and gained prominence for his coverage of the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann.

Alan Mintz in the Jewish Review of Books, writing about Gouri’s 90th birthday celebrations, noted: “It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of poetry in 20th-century Israeli culture. The willful disengagement from Orthodox beliefs and practices that accompanied the Zionist revolution left the spiritual needs of secular Israelis unattended to, and the writing and reading of poetry have often become a kind of sacrament filling that void. Beginning in Eastern Europe and continuing in Palestine, Hebrew readers looked to poets not only to illuminate their private experience but also to serve as secular prophets.”

Gouri, Mintz wrote, has the unofficial status of national poet, in particular because of his ability and willingness to “evince sympathy for the nation.”

In 1988, Gouri won the prestigious Israel Prize for his poetry. And he never stopped writing, with his 2009 collection of poems, “Eyval” published at 86.

He wasn’t known in America, but received some prominence in Europe, having spent a year at the Sorbonne after completing his studies at Hebrew University.

Veteran Israeli poet, novelist, journalist, and documentary filmmaker Haim Gouri at his home in Jerusalem, in 1986. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

The only translation of his poetry in English is by Stanley F. Chyet, “Words in My Lovesick Blood: Poems by Haim Gouri.”

In addition, some of poems were set to music, with perhaps his best-known being “Bab El Wad,” with lyrics by Gouri and melody by Shmuel Farshko.

The song refers to the narrow 23-kilometer stretch of road to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, used for getting supplies to Jerusalem during the siege on the city.

Bab El Wad, forever remember our names!
Convoys broke through on the way to the city.
By the side of the road lay our dead.
The iron skeleton is silent like my comrade.

And I walk, passing here in utter silence.
I remember them, each and every one.
Here we fought on cliffs and boulders,
Here we were one family.

Gouri was eulogized on Wednesday by politicians from across the political spectrum.

Responding to the news of his death, Culture Minister Miri Regev described Gouri as “one of the great poets of the 1948 generation who heralded the revival of our people in our land.”

“Gouri was and will always remain one of the ‘Fire Flowers’ of our national revival in the State of Israel,” she said, referring to the title of his 1949 work.

Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein said that “Gouri’s life story is interwoven with the history of the state of Israel and his poems have been and will always remain a part of the Israeli ethos.”

The Knesset speaker said he would name a garden in the Israeli parliament for Gouri.

Gouri was survived by his wife, three daughters and six grandchildren.

“When they asked Dad, ‘how are you?’ he would answer in two ways,” his daughter Hamutal told Army Radio on Wednesday morning. “‘I am as my nation is,’ or he would say, ‘the land of Israel hurts me.’ He was connected to this land with every aspect of his soul.”

Jessica Steinberg contributed to this report.

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